It's an understatement to say George W. Bush starts 2003 in a much stronger political position than when he took office almost two years ago. Bush's victory in 2000 was the most tenuous for a president in over a century. Bush slipped past Al Gore in the electoral college by just four votes; only Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 had a smaller electoral college margin (just one).
Bush became the first president to lose the popular vote since 1888 and he didn't lose it by a whisker either: Gore's 543,895-vote margin over Bush was more than four times John F. Kennedy's advantage over Richard Nixon in 1960. As late as August 2001, Bush ran even with Gore in polls measuring early sentiment for 2004.
Now, of course, after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush's position has transformed. His approval rating in Gallup Organization Inc. polls hasn't fallen below 60% in the nearly 16 months since the attacks -- among the longest sustained runs of high approval for any president.
Many, perhaps most, Americans appeared to take a snapshot of Bush in the frenzied, frightening days after the attacks and concluded that he passed as wrenching a test as any president had faced in decades. That verdict deepened as the U.S.-led military campaign routed the Taliban and Al Qaeda from Afghanistan. "Sept. 11 ... is and will be the defining event of Bush's first term, and it is the way that most people have come to know Bush's leadership qualities," acknowledges Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "There is something that endures from that."
Yet, for all of that goodwill, Bush's approval rating quietly but steadily sank through 2002. In Gallup's poll last January, 84% of Americans gave Bush positive marks for his performance in office; in their final survey of the year, just before Christmas, only 61% did. That's still a healthy number; if Bush could sustain it through 2004, he almost certainly would be reelected. But the trend is enough to give heart to the Democrats now organizing presidential bids.
In fact, despite Bush's high overall standing, there remain sharp cleavages in the country's assessment of his presidency. He has solidified enormous, almost unprecedented, support from his base: Republicans and conservative independents. In the 2002 election, Bush demonstrated he could inspire that base to get off the couch and vote, generating huge increases in Republican turnout, especially in the states he carried in 2000.
But other segments of the electorate remain skeptical -- perhaps not as hostile to Bush as they were in 2000, but still unconvinced. It's from these groups that the eventual Democratic nominee will have to try to assemble a coalition in 2004.
Data from Los Angeles Times Polls over the last several years offer a revealing look at where Bush has made the most progress -- and where Democrats might still find opportunities. The best insight comes from an analysis in which pollsters group voters by their partisan leanings and by ideology. That divides the electorate into six groups: liberal Democrats, moderate to conservative Democrats, liberal to moderate independents, conservative independents, liberal to moderate Republicans and conservative Republicans.
The liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans are the base of each party: Just 4% of each group voted for the other side's presidential nominee in 2000, according to The Times' exit poll. Not many more will be up for grabs in 2004.
The real battle is in the middle. Relative to Bob Dole, the GOP's 1996 nominee, Bush in the 2000 election advanced across the entire center of the electorate. Bush improved on Dole's vote by 7 percentage points with moderate Democrats and by double digits with the three other swing groups: moderate independents, conservative independents and moderate Republicans. Yet that still wasn't enough to win the popular vote.
Bush has gained more ground since: In the latest Times Poll, 52% of adults say they're inclined to support him for reelection. But his advances have been uneven.
Compared with his vote tally in 2000, Bush didn't do any better on that reelection question among conservative Republicans -- largely because he already attracted 95% of them last time. With almost all the other groups, Bush managed small gains, from 2 to 5 percentage points -- within the poll's margin of error. Though lessened, the basic polarization from 2002 is still visible: Bush draws little support from Democrats but overwhelming backing from all voters to the right of center.
Intriguingly, just one group is moving in the opposite direction: moderate to liberal independents. Just 28% of them said in the poll that they're inclined to support Bush in 2004, down from his 38% vote in 2000. Just over half of the center-left independents say they're now inclined not to vote for Bush.
Those attitudes are opening a huge chasm with the conservative independents, four-fifths of whom say they'll now support Bush. What explains this divergence? The center-left independents are much more likely than the conservatives to favor legalized abortion. And the centrists are less hawkish: In the Times Poll, the centrists were much less likely than the conservative independents to favor invading Iraq without allied support or if U.N. inspectors find no evidence that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has been developing weapons of mass destruction.
But the economy is the biggest divide between the two groups. Three-fourths of the conservative independents say they approve of Bush's economic performance; just one-third of the center-left independents agree. And while half of the conservative independents say further tax cuts are the best way to revive growth, two-thirds of the centrist independents prefer spending on infrastructure and schools -- a view that brings them much closer to Democrats.
The public judgment that Bush has effectively handled the war against terrorism is an enduring strength. But it hasn't answered all questions about him for the electorate. Bush's hold on right-leaning voters is overwhelming. But these numbers suggest that beyond the conservative core, there's still a large audience for competing ideas on the economy, health care and even a possible war in Iraq -- if Democrats can find something to say, and someone to say it.
Ronald Brownstein's column appears every Monday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times' Web site at: www.latimes.com/brownstein.